Hoof Abscesses in Horses

“No Leg:  No Horse”

            If you’ve ever owned a horse, chances are you’ve dealt with a hoof abscess or two.  The most common cause of lameness, they can seem to strike suddenly, causing such severe pain that the horse is unable to bear weight on the affected foot.  The horse may seem so suddenly painful, that it can look initially like a fracture has occurred.

            Hoof abscesses occur most often when the foot is very soft – as it is during the wet months of winter and spring, but they can also develop during drier times when the foot is very hard.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but a hoof abscess can arise secondary to small cracks in the hardened sole of the foot.  These cracks allow moisture and bacteria into the soft sensitive regions of the sole, resulting in the development of an infection. Other less common causes of hoof abscesses include puncture wounds, severe sole bruises, or a “hot” nail.  Chronic founder will also predispose the horse to the development of recurrent hoof abscesses.

            A hoof abscess can come suddenly – seemingly within hours, or it may develop gradually, beginning as mild to moderate soreness which progresses to severe pain over the course of several days.  Depending on the location and size of the abscess, your horse may or may not be able to bear weight on the sore foot.  He may also have a bounding digital pulse, which can be felt on either side of the back of the pastern just below the fetlock.  The hoof wall may also feel warm to the touch.

            If you suspect that your horse had developed an abscess, call your veterinarian right away.  He or she will be able to determine the location of the abscess and in most cases, drain it.  Adequate drainage will relieve a majority of the pain caused by the build-up of pressure within the sole of the foot.  On some occasions, treatment may require daily soaks to soften the sole and aid in maturation of the infection before the abscess can be evacuated.

            Once drained, the role of the caretaker comes into play.  The foot must stay clean and bandaged until the abscess has had time to heal completely, usually 5-7days.  Aftercare may also require 3-5 days of continued soaks to draw out the infected material.  Your vet will prescribe pain medication to make your horse comfortable and on rare occasions, he or she may elect to prescribe antibiotics if the infection is severe enough.  Complications are rare, but if allowed to become severe enough, hoof abscesses can affect the internal structures of the foot, warranting more aggressive medical treatment.

            Proper hoof care and regular trimming will reduce the occurrence of an abscess developing.  Keeping your paddock dry and free of excess manure and organic debris can also help.  Some horses, such as those with chronic laminitis, may require specialized trimming and shoeing.  While the sight of your horse hobbling along on three legs is a distressing, a hoof abscess is a very treatable condition which can be quickly and effectively managed when caught early.


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